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Reservation Dogs Creator Sterlin Harjo on Balancing Jokes and Tears in the Season 2 Finale, and Not Caring About Emmy Snubs

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“The fact that I get to tell this story and we’re on Season 3, I mean, that’s better than any Emmy.”

Devery Jacobs Lane Factor Paulina Alexis and DPharaoh WoonATai in Reservation Dogs.

Devery Jacobs, Lane Factor, Paulina Alexis, and D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai in Reservation Dogs.Courtesy of Shane Brown for FX

In the final minutes of the second season of Reservation Dogs, the eponymous clique of Indigenous teens at the center of the inventive FX series gaze at the ocean for the first time, having ventured to California from their landlocked home of Oklahoma to fulfill a promise made to their late friend Daniel. Cheese, the group’s gentle philosopher, marvels at the tide: “It just keeps going,” he says, also summarizing the thematic undercurrent of Season 2, in which the rez dogs strive to find balance and heal through the elliptical waves of grief.

Led by creator and showrunner Sterlin Harjo, Reservation Dogs swivels from raw emotion to absurdist humor to spiritual revelation with impressive grace in its brief 25-30 minute episodes, bolstered by visual and cultural specificity that distinguishes it from anything else on TV. Harjo cut his teeth as an independent filmmaker and member of sketch comedy troupe The 1491s before teaming up with fellow Indigenous writer/director Taika Waititi to co-write the Rez Dogs pilot, which premiered on International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples in 2021. The series draws from Harjo’s personal experiences of growing up in Oklahoma, as well as the experiences of his cast and crew, all of whom are also Indigenous—making it the first TV production of its kind.

Season 2 of Reservation Dogs gestures to the ways Native communities are impacted by the carceral system, intergenerational trauma, and depression/suicide, while retaining the humor and heart that make the show and its characters so rewarding to love. Harjo’s knack for keeping the show grounded yet light on its feet is on perfect display in the season finale: One minute you’re snickering at a delightfully odd cameo from Incubus frontman Brandon Boyd as White Jesus, and the next you’re ugly-crying from the healing power of friendship and community.

Harjo chatted with GQ about what went into writing Season 2, the importance of community, and what he really thinks about the Emmy voters who snubbed the show.

I want to start by celebrating your cast, because I’m so moved by how the core four actors have grown as performers. It’s also exciting to see their careers start to blossom outside of the show.

It’s been so rewarding and beautiful to watch all of them grow. They’re family to me at this point. I remember casting them and I just felt like it was meant to be. We didn’t do a lot of tests with them together. We casted individually. I was really nervous, [but] it just felt like the right group right from the beginning. Since then, we’ve just gotten closer through this journey together. I’m protective over them and they’re protective over me.

I imagine the show is opening up doors for other members of your crew as well, many of whom are longtime collaborators of yours. Can you talk about the collaborative community that you’ve built?

All of them are my friends, and were previously my friends [before making the show]. We did our work in films and comedy and poetry and all of these things. Taika and I, we started out in the Indigenous filmmaker community, where we were showing our films at independent, Indigenous and Native film festivals. It felt like we were part of a counterculture. It felt like we were changing something. It’s always felt punk rock. We had something to come up against and there were doors that needed to be kicked in.

The Native art community is close, and I know how talented they all are. The show has been a vehicle to bring that community together and give people opportunities. That is one of my favorite things about this job so far, is being able to do what Taika did for me and open doors for people.

How far along are you into writing Season 3? I’m curious what themes or ideas are percolating so far.

We’ve spent four days in the writers room. We work pretty fast. We have a lot of episodes loosely put on the board. That changes constantly, but what I can say is that Season 2 is still the show [even though] it’s different than Season 1. And I think the same will be [true] for Season 3. How do we keep expanding the storytelling, but also keep the show intact, and keep everything coming back to our four reservation dogs?

I love how we got to spend a lot more time with certain supporting characters in Season 2, particularly elders of the community, like Rita and Big. Why was that a priority for the season, and what did you want the viewers to see or learn through widening the scope of the storytelling there?

I always wanted to tell a story about a community. The reservation dogs’ story was the way into that. I got this opportunity to tell our stories as Native people, and I knew that I could do it in a right way. Part of that is holding a mirror and showing people what is special about us, and to me, it is that community-driven life. I love that and I wanted to show that.

. Season 1 allowed the opportunity for Season 2 to expand and break off and talk about other people. And then you start seeing patterns like: The adults went through something that the kids went through and they didn’t handle it right. Well, that’s how you learn in a community. You learn from [watching] other people’s actions. That’s important about a community. So naturally, we tell these circular stories.

We get a broader glimpse at life outside of the reservation as well. The season starts with Jackie and Elora road-tripping to LA, which had me scared for them.

How that storyline came about is that it was actually a script of mine that I never finished. I write a lot, so I have volumes of half-finished scripts on my computer. After [the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at] Standing Rock, I was inspired to write a script about two women on the run after leaving the camps there. I never did anything with it. It felt like a moment had passed, and it felt too topical, but I liked a lot of the scenes and the story. I adapted it to Jackie and Elora’s storyline, and it fit so well.

I think that a lot of shows, especially by non-Natives, focus on the pain and damage and darkness done to Native women. I wanted to show women that found danger, but overcame it. They found themselves being chased by rednecks and got away. But I did want to walk that line, where you don’t know what’s going to happen.

In general, it felt like Season 2 put a spotlight on the women of the community, and we got to see how different and nuanced their experiences are. I’d love to hear about the women on your crew or in your broader community, and how they influence what we see on the screen.

I’ve always tried to create female characters that felt like the strong women in my family. One of the things that attracted me to cinema outside of America was the strong female characters; I was watching a lot of Latin American cinema when I was in college, and [other] things that felt more like my upbringing. I [also] have feature films that are about women. It’s always something that I care about and want. In the writer’s room, I have great female writers. It’s my job as a showrunner to give people space to bring their realities and truths to the table.

With the episode “Mabel,” one of the ideas was to show the younger women learning by watching the older women in these situations. That was based on when my Aunt Doreen died. She was always the person that took care of people at funerals, or when somebody passed away, she was cooking food. When she passed away, I was at her house, and I remember being struck by how all of her granddaughters, without missing a beat, took her place and began taking care of everyone and making sure people were fed. It wasn’t something that was verbalized to them, it was just something they had watched their whole life and so they knew exactly what to do. I was really moved by seeing them step up like that and fill her shoes, and I wanted to show that in this episode, “Mabel.”

Making “Wide Net,” we had [the idea to] do an episode about the aunties of the crew of the rez dogs. There’s only so much that I know about being a female and going out, but you have [writers] Tazbah [Rose Chavez], and Erica [Tremblay], and Devery [Jacobs], and it’s like they’re shifting thrones while we’re doing the writers room. I will pass people the baton that way.

I grew up with roofer dads and uncles and had roofed myself, and so did Ryan Redcorn and Chad Charlie, who co-wrote the “Roofing” episode with me. You put your heads together through your own life experiences. That’s what I encourage the most: we all pull from our life. A lot of the show is my life, but I encourage the other writers to pull from theirs as well. It helps give that feeling that Rez Dogs has, which is truth.

Speaking of lived experience, I’m curious what your reaction is when you encounter media depictions of Native life that are made by non-Native people.

I choose not to worry about that stuff much. I didn’t like Wind River, I don’t want to watch white people saving Indians. But I don’t worry about it that much, because if I get too hung up on it, then I end up just talking about that. There was a long period where I just talked about that, and felt myself complaining, and I was unhappy because I didn’t have a career at the time. I’m glad I didn’t get eaten up by that, because it would’ve taken the focus off what I want to do.

There’s always going to be people making films in Native communities, and there is a white savior complex. But I don’t think that’s going to happen as much anymore, because after Reservation Dogs, and after other [Native] films and shows come out, it’s going to be easy for non-Native audiences to see when someone’s telling those stories from a false place. It’s going to be so obvious, that I don’t think people will want to make them or watch them.

My idea to combat bad representation has always been to make good work. There are people that wear headdresses and regalia and go yell and bang on doors at studios. That does nothing for Native filmmakers. That actually makes it harder. Us making good work and getting [more] opportunities is what will change things and help truthful stories like Reservation Dogs get out there and get made.

A lot of fans, myself included, were disappointed that the show was overlooked by the Emmys. But how much, if at all, do those types of institutional accolades even factor into your idea of creative success?

It would be great to have Emmys, but I am so past an Emmy at this point. The show is the award. The fact that I get to tell this story and it’s supported and we’re on Season 3, I mean, that’s better than any Emmy. The fact that Native people have something that they’re so proud of and take ownership of, that’s better than any Emmy.

Awards are great and feel really good and all, but I know we’re making a good show. That’s what I told the writers when we didn’t get nominated. I texted them like, “Would’ve been great to have an Emmy, but just remember we made the best show ever.” And that’s how I feel.

No one can take the show away from us. No one can take away the truth and love that we put into the show and how many lives it’s changed. And that’s not just the actors. There’s a whole crew [whose] lives have been changed. There’s so many things we’ve gotten out of it that are more important than awards.

And look, I don’t blame Emmy voters. They don’t know what [the show] is. It’s a successful show, but I can’t imagine that it’s on every Emmy voter’s radar. The fan base is growing even as we speak. Ted Lasso is an easier thing to watch and to place at the Emmys. It’s hard to even know who the main character is in our show. It is a true ensemble. And it’s hard to say if it’s a comedy or a drama. We’re breaking rules that people aren’t used to. That’s what makes it successful, I think, is that it’s not just a comedy, it also makes people cry a lot. I’ve never heard so many people tell me they cry during a comedy. I bet it’s one of the most tear-inducing comedies ever made.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about the Brandon Boyd cameo in the season finale. How did that happen?

It was hilarious. All of a sudden I had this audition from Brandon Boyd in my inbox, and he was great. He was funny. Totally cool guy. He was ready and willing to play White Jesus, which is a great part for him. He kind of already looks like Jesus, or at least the classical version of Jesus. He was a lot of fun. We put him with Tim Capello playing the sax at the end, and I think that it was probably very surprising for people, but also [like] a little gift saying, “thanks and see you next season.” It was a fun little button to put on the show.

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